Madame Curie

date Aug 19, 2015
authors Eve Curie
reading time 18 mins

Wealth and honors did not matter

When her mission was accomplished she died exhausted, having refused wealth and endured her honors with indifference.

A Polish little girl with perfect Russian

The inspector was satisfied. This child had a good memory. And what a marvelous accent! She might have been born at St Petersburg.

In a family of 3 educated girls

Already tormented by intellectual ambition, the three Sklodovski girls grumbled at the rule forbidding women to enter the University of Warsaw;

Father and science

The poor man, father of a family, balancing his budget with the greatest difficulty, had found leisure to develop his scientific knowledge by going through publications which he procured by considerable effort. It seemed to him quite natural to keep up with the progress of chemistry and physics

Free and new ideas

In free countries this current of ideas was allowed to develop publicly; but such was not the case in Poland, where every manifestation of independence of mind was regarded with suspicion. The new theories made their way and spread by underground routes.

Positive idealist

but there was a daring and original character in her which could not long tolerate the conventional life. The “positive idealist” was always there, eager to be useful, to fight.

France <3

Marya Sklodovska wanted to study in France more than in any other country. The prestige of France dazzled her. In Berlin and Petersburg the oppressors of Poland reigned; but in France liberty was cherished, all feelings and all beliefs were respected, and there was a welcome for the unhappy and the hunted, no matter whence they came.

A young girl who could not afford

My plans for the future? I have none, or rather they are so commonplace and simple that they are not worth talking about. I mean to get through as well as I can, and when I can do no more, say farewell to this base world.

at 21 and governness

Think of it: I am learning chemistry from a book. You can imagine how little I get out of that, but what can I do, as I have no place to make experiments or do practical work?

Back into lab

The Floating University again opened its mysterious doors to her. And incomparable pleasure, major event! Manya for the first time in her life penetrated into a laboratory.

In Paris at last

For the first time she was breathing the air of a free country, and in her enthusiasm everything seemed miraculous. Miraculous that the passers-by who loitered along the pavement spoke the language they wanted to speak, miraculous that the booksellers sold works from the whole world without restraint.… Before and above everything else, it was miraculous that these straight avenues, inclined in a gentle slope toward the heart of the city, were leading her, Manya Sklodovska, to the wide-open doors of a university. And what a university!

Admission to the Faculty of Science!

She had her place in the experimental laboratories, where, guided and advised, she could handle apparatus without fumbling and succeed in some simple experiments. Manya was now oh, delight! a student in the Faculty of Science. And in fact she was no longer called Manya, or even Marya: on her registration card she had written, in the French style, “Marie Sklodovska.”

Science and the excitement

How could anybody find science dry? Was there anything more enthralling than the unchangeable rules which governed the universe, or more marvelous than the human intelligence which could discover them?


For more than three solid years she was to lead a life devoted to study alone: a life in conformity with her dreams, a “perfect” life in the sense in which that of the monk or the missionary is perfect.

Sounds like me and cooking a bit…

Everything that Bronya had learned when she was mistress of her father’s house was unknown to Marie. And the report had it, in the Polish colony, that “Mademoiselle Sklodovska doesn’t know what you use to make soup.”


By deliberate intention she had suppressed diversions from her schedule, as well as friendly meetings and contact with human beings. In the same way she decided that material life had no importance; that it did not exist. And, fortified by this principle, she made for herself a Spartan existence, strange and inhuman.

Believe in ourselves

We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained. Perhaps everything will turn out very well, at the moment when we least expect it.…


In all ages women who burn to become great painters or great musicians have disdained the norm, love and motherhood. Most often they are converted to family life when their dreams of glory come to nothing; or else, when they do make careers, it is in fact at the sacrifice of their sentimental life.

First mention of her awesome collaborator

“I know a scientist of great merit who works in the School of Physics and Chemistry in the Rue Lhomond. Perhaps he might have a workroom available. In any case he could give you some advice. Come and have tea tomorrow evening, after dinner, with my wife and me. I will ask the young man to come. You probably know his name: it is Pierre Curie.”


In a civilization in which intellectual superiority is seldom allied to moral worth, Pierre Curie was an almost unique specimen of humanity: his mind was both powerful and noble. The attraction he felt from the first moment for the foreign girl who spoke so little was doubled by intense curiosity.

Sharing his publication

He sent her, by way of compliment, a reprint of his latest publication, On Symmetry in Physical Phenomena: Symmetry of an Electric Field and of a Magnetic Field; and on the first page he wrote in his awkward hand, “To Mlle Sklodovska, with the respect and friendship of the author, P. Curie.”

What attraction

What held and fascinated him was her total devotion to work; it was her genius that he felt; it was also her courage and nobility. This graceful girl had the character and gifts of a great man.

Take the chance!

He no longer wanted to love: a salutary principle which had saved him from commonplace marriage and made him wait for this meeting with an exceptional woman, a woman “made for him” for Marie. And now he would not be stupid enough to let the chance of great happiness and a wonderful collaboration escape him for the sake of a “principle.”

Wedding dress \o/

“I have no dress except the one I wear every day,” Marie had said. “If you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark, so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.”

Practical wedding

Marie loved the idea of her wedding, which was to be, in every detail of the great day, different from all other weddings. There would be no white dress, no gold ring, no “wedding breakfast.” There would be no religious ceremony: Pierre was a freethinker and Marie, for a long time past, had ceased the practices of religion.

Walks once again and again …

Pierre loved the country passionately, and no doubt his long, silent walks were necessary to his genius; their equal rhythm encouraged his scientist’s meditation.

Simple housekeeping \o/

Marie and Pierre had done nothing to decorate their three tiny rooms. They even refused the furniture offered them by Dr Curie: every sofa and chair would be one more object to dust in the morning and to furbish up on days of full cleaning. Marie could not do it; she hadn’t time.

Practical exploration

She invented dishes which needed little preparation, and still others which could be left to “cook themselves” during the hours she passed at the school. But cooking was as difficult and mysterious as chemistry.

Minimal maintenance

I am arranging my flat little by little, but I intend to keep it to a style which will give me no worries and will not require attention

Focus and routinized disciplined

Our life is always the same, monotonous. We see nobody but the Dluskis and my husband’s parents in Sceaux. We hardly ever go to the theater and we give ourselves no diversions.

A scientist, a mother and a wife

The idea of choosing between family life and the scientific career did not even cross Marie’s mind. She was resolved to face love, maternity and science all three, and to cheat none of them. By passion and will, she was to succeed.


Thus, in the same year, within an interval of three months, Marie Curie brought into the world her first child and the results of her first research.

Intro to Radiation

Becquerel’s discovery fascinated the Curies. They asked themselves whence came the energy tiny, to be sure which uranium compounds constantly disengaged in the form of radiation. And what was the nature of this radiation?

Not only uranium

She questioned: Even though the phenomenon had only been observed with uranium, nothing proved that uranium was the only chemical element capable of emitting such radiation. Why should not other bodies possess the same power?

Doubt and measurement

“It must be an error in experiment,” the young woman thought; for doubt is the scientist’s first response to an unexpected phenomenon. She started her measurements over again, unmoved, using the same products. She started over again ten times, twenty times.

Both Curies came together

The available force was now doubled. Two brains, four hands, now sought the unknown element in the damp little workroom in the Rue Lhomond. From this moment onward it is impossible to distinguish each one’s part in the work of the Curies.

The immutable molecule?

How was one to explain the spontaneous radiation of the radioactive bodies? The discovery upset a world of acquired knowledge and contradicted the most firmly established ideas on the composition of matter.

Extraction of radioactive material - radium

She cut the strings, undid the coarse sackcloth and plunged her two hands into the dull brown ore, still mixed with pine needles from Bohemia. There was where radium was hidden. It was from there that Marie must extract it, even if she had to treat a mountain of this inert stuff like dust on the road.

Method of extracting radium

In this division of labor Marie had chosen the “man’s job.” She accomplished the toil of a day laborer. Inside the shed her husband was absorbed by delicate experiments. In the courtyard, dressed in her old dust-covered and acid-stained smock, her hair blown by the wind, surrounded by smoke which stung her eyes and throat, Marie was a sort of factory all by herself.


The radiation of the new substance was so powerful that a tiny quantity of radium, disseminated through the ore, was the source of striking phenomena which could be easily observed and measured. The difficult, the impossible thing, was to isolate this minute quantity, to separate it from the gangue in which it was so intimately mixed. The days of work became months and years: Pierre and Marie were not discouraged. This material which resisted them, which defended its secrets, fascinated them.


Our life is always the same. We work a lot but we sleep well, so our health does not suffer. The evenings are taken up by caring for the child. In the morning I dress her and give her her food, then I can generally go out at about nine. During the whole of this year we have not been either to the theater or a concert, and we have not paid one visit.

He must have a lab than not to have

The problem was not simply to find some subordinate work which would cover the deficit. Pierre Curie, as we know, considered scientific research as a vital necessity. It was more indispensable to him to work in the laboratory or in the shed, rather, as there was no laboratory than to eat or sleep.

Simply salary

No post of interest was free for months, and the Curies, absorbed by their great work on radium, preferred to muddle along rather than to waste their time further in antechambers. They made the best of a bad job and did not complain. Five hundred francs, after all, was not abject poverty. Life could be managed … badly.

Contemplating death of each other

He contemplated Marie’s twisted, grief-stricken face for a moment. Then he said firmly: “You are wrong. Whatever happens, even if one has to go on like a body without a soul, one must work just the same.”

Giving it all away for Science

In agreement with me [Marie was to write twenty years later] Pierre Curie decided to take no material profit from our discovery: in consequence we took out no patent and we have published the results of our research without reserve, as well as the processes of preparation of radium. Moreover, we gave interested persons all the information they requested.


Marie in Polish, it was addressed to her brother. The date is worthy of remark: December 11, 1903, the day after the public meeting in Stockholm. The first day of fame! In this moment Marie should have been intoxicated by her triumph. Her adventure was indeed extraordinary: no woman had achieved renown in the difficult realm of science. She was the first, and for the moment the only, celebrated woman scientist in the world.

Streamlining distractions

… Always a hubbub. People are keeping us from work as much as they can. Now I have decided to be brave and I receive no visitors but they disturb me just the same. Our life has been altogether spoiled by honors and fame.

Declining all superfluousness

With Pierre, who was naturally detached, the attack of popularity encountered the resistance of principles he had always held. He hated hierarchies and classifications. He found it absurd that there should be “firsts” in a class, and the decorations which grown persons coveted seemed to him as superfluous as the medals awarded children in school.

Continued bravely

Marie Curie did not change from a happy young wife to an inconsolable widow. The metamorphosis was less simple and more serious.

Refused pension

On the morrow of the obsequies the government officially proposed to award the widow and children of Pierre Curie a national pension. Jacques submitted this plan to Marie, who refused flatly: “I don’t want a pension,” she said. “I am young enough to earn my living and that of my children.”

First as a woman

This was the first time that a position in French higher education had been given to a woman. Marie listened distractedly, almost with indifference, to her father-in-law giving the details of the heavy mission she owed it to herself to accept. She answered in a few syllables: “I will try.”

Independent upbringing

She did not encourage her children to acrobatic imprudence, but she wanted them to be hardy. There was never to be any question of being “afraid of the dark” with Irène and Eve or of hiding their heads under a pillow when a storm broke, or being afraid of burglars or epidemics. Marie had known all these terrors of old: she delivered her children from them. Even the memory of Pierre’s fatal accident did not make a nervous watcher out of her. The little girls were to go out alone very early, at eleven or twelve years of age; soon they were to travel without an escort.

Not religious

She did not have her daughters baptized and gave them no sort of pious education. She felt herself incapable of teaching them dogmas in which she no longer believed: above all, she feared for them the distress she had known when she lost her faith.

Natural light!

She demanded vast rooms, big windows which would inundate the research halls with sunlight.

During the World War I

Mme Curie found the solution. She created, with funds from the Union of Women of France, the first “radiological car”: it was an ordinary automobile in which she put a Roentgen apparatus and a dynamo which, driven by the motor of the car, furnished the necessary current.

Irene Curie

The elder, a student of twenty-one, calm and marvelously balanced, had never hesitated for an instant over her vocation: she would be a physicist, and she wanted, very definitely, to study radium. The fame and the achievement of her parents neither discouraged nor intimidated her.

She would have liked Eve, well gifted in science, to become a doctor and to study the medical applications of radium. Nevertheless, she did not impose that course upon the child. With tireless sympathy she supported each of her daughter’s capricious plans in turn, rejoiced to see her studying music, and left the choice of her teachers and her methods of work to herself.…

Giving it all away in the name of Science

“Radium was not to enrich anyone. Radium is an element. It belongs to all people.”

Saying No and disengagements

She had never once accorded it. Marie did not want to become a member of committees in which she did not have time to do actual work. And above all she desired to maintain an absolute political neutrality in all circumstances.

Fairy tale and science

A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.

Ideas » People

“In science,” she had said long ago, “we must be interested in things, not in persons.” The years had taught her that the public, and even the governments, did not know how to be interested in things except through persons. Whether she wished to do so or not, she had to use her prestige to honor and enrich science to “dignify” it,


Marie hated hangings, carpets and draperies. She liked a shining floor and naked glass windows that could not steal one ray of the sun from her. She wanted the Seine, the quais and the Île-de-la-Cité an admirable view complete and unimpaired.

Proximity, leading by example » direct tutoring

Marie had never had time to be a perfect educator to her daughters. But Irène and Eve received one gift from her that they will never be able to appreciate enough: the incomparable benefit of living near an exceptional being exceptional not only in her genius, but by her humanity, by her innate refusal of all vulgarity and littleness.

Silence as No

To the heated brains that produced many of the other letters, in which inks of different colors alternated over eight or ten pages misunderstood inventors, persecuted madmen, madmen in love, and threatening madmen there was only one answer possible: silence.